Fall of the House of Usher–Poe on Steroids
This Halloween-esque Netflix eight-episode mini-series (released in time for Trick or Treat on October 12) is a not-so-loyal but brilliant riff on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1840 collection of short stories, “The Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque”. Embroidered with many literary references to some of these tales, each episode in Fall of the House of Usher is named after one of Poe’s works. For example, Episode 1: “The Masque of the Red Death”. Literary allusions to even more short story titles throughout this mini-series are playful and witty. (For example, a glass of Amontillado anyone?)
Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), the 70-something billionaire CEO of a corrupt pharmaceutical company–Fortunato– has been made fabulously wealthy by ruthlessly marketing and selling an addictive opioid. (Modeled after the Sackler family, no doubt.)
A serial womanizer who once was married to the love of his life, the beautiful Annabel Lee, Roderick Usher, after having a son and daughter with Annabel, moves on to build his fortune after Annabel leaves him. The only familial relationship left intact for Roderick is with his twin sister, Madeline (Mary McDonnell –from “Dances with Wolves”.)
The family saga of misbegotten fortune at Fortunato Corporation unravels with each macabre episode: exploring the curse of the House of Usher on Roderick and his progeny–now numbering six middle-aged adult children harboring vicious, destructive sibling rivalry. Each son and daughter has a life bloated with wealth and entitlement. Soulless, living in a dark psyche rife with deriving pleasure (including sexual) from cruelty to others, each Usher is convinced he or she is justified in their loathsome behavior. And slowly, in each episode, we witness the fall of one of the six malevolent siblings.
Although all six siblings are unhinged, perhaps no one is more so than Frederick (Henry Thomas–remember the little boy in “E.T.”?). The curse on the House of Usher is not known until the finale in which Verna (Carla Gugino), a mysterious fantastical spirit, reminds Roderick and Madeleine of the Faustian deal they had made with her at a bar over forty years ago.
Part Grim Reaper, part Karma, Verna is relentless in her pursuit of the fall of the House of Usher. She scathingly accuses Roderick of the inhumanity of his obscene wealth:
“So much money. One of my favorite things about human beings. Starvation, poverty, disease, you could fix all that, just with money….Hell, if you stopped making movies and TV for one year and you spent that money on what you really need, you could solve it all. With some to spare.”
The patriarch and his equally diabolical sister, Madeline the “queen”, ultimately suffer the consequences from causing millions of untold deaths from “tattooing the world with opioids”. They no longer can “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away”, Verna reminds them.
The large ensemble cast is exemplary, but particularly Bruce Greenwood as Roderick Usher; Mary McDonnell as Madeline; Henry Thomas as Frederick; Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars”) as the Usher family lawyer Arthur Gordon Pym; and the spectacular Carla Gugino as Verna, the spirit animal for all the victims of greed and injustice. Each actor’s placid expressions spit venom with an acidic after-taste. Their characters’ power is brutal without the hint of a smile or a flinch of regret. All performances convey an outwardly quiet but inwardly hollow core of deadly cold nothingness.
The Fall of the House of Usher is truly brilliant, a tour-de-force of acting, writing, and inspiration from Edgar Allen Poe. One of the best mini-series of 2023!
Note: Episode 1 (“A Midnight Dreary”) sets up the plot and is the weakest of all eight episodes. It may dissuade continuing watching, but hang in there.